Since Hurricane Irma has passed for now, the primetime lights can now turn on for a Friday night football matchup featuring the Illinois Fighting Illini and the South Florida Bulls. Both teams have amassed two wins so far this season without losing a game, however the Bulls are ranked No. 22 in the nation and are expected to win the American Athletic Conference. The Bulls look to be the Illini’s sternest test yet, as Lovie Smith’s young and bullish team hope to carry the momentum they have established thus far onto the road against a ranked opponent. The Illini showed a glimpses of the trademark Lovie Smith defense that fans have grown accustomed to seeing in the professional ranks and are now as excited as ever regarding the future of this team. What does this mean heading into Week 3 however?
The good news to last week’s home win against Western Kentucky showed the capabilities this young defense has. Defensive ends Bobby Roundtree and Isaiah Gay have played like veterans and have provided a stable amount of pressure to opposing team’s quarterbacks that give the young, but shaky secondary some cushioning against opposing receiving cores. In addition, the Illini threw two freshmen into the starting offensive line in an attempt to stabilize a poor front line, and it worked. Alex Palczewski and Larry Boyd impressed in their first starts and can hopefully repeat their performances for an offensive line that has struggled nearly every game the Illini play. The Illini were also able to control possession of the ball during a majority of the game, unlike their week one matchup vs Ball State. The Illini utilized the run mainly via freshman standout, Mike Epstein and quarterback, Chayce Crouch
The bad news? Well, Chayce Crouch looked poor through the air. For the most part, Crouch’s passes never seemed to be on target or thrown with any confidence, particularly on medium to long routes. Crouch will need to continue to utilize the short pass, however it is expected that their ranked opponent, South Florida will pick up on that and force Crouch to air out plays. In addition, Western Kentucky simply was not the team that they were the past few years. The Hilltoppers were one of the top teams in Conference-USA, utilizing an efficient, pass-heavy offense under coach Jeff Brohm. However, with Brohm leaving for Purdue, a new staff has come in. The Hilltoppers were clearly trying to settle in under new personnel, in addition to not having their typical offensive firepower. I apologize for my weekly dose of negativity and skepticism while covering Illini sports, but again I do this to temper unrealistic expectations and grandiose doses of superiority.
WEEK 3 PREVIEW:
This is a primetime matchup on a big time stage. Meaning that the Illini are playing on the ESPN network, on a Friday night slot, and also they are playing on an NFL level stage in Raymond James Stadium. With the Illini carrying many players from the state of Florida, I am sure nerves, as well as adrenaline will play a factor in the early goings. Florida is a hotbed for football, so expect many high school programs to be represented, in addition to the numerous Illini alumni and fans in the Sunshine State.
I am sure the Illini will look to pound the football on the ground with Mike Epstein and Chayce Crouch. This may work, however I am skeptical (What a surprise) regarding the Illini’s ability to sustain a physical run game on a shortened week of practice and in a humid, environment such as South Florida. Also, it is safe to assume that the 22nd-ranked team in the nation has scouted that the Illini has struggled airing the ball out, particularly downfield. Coach Charlie Strong and Co. will undoubtedly test Chayce Crouch’s ability to move the ball in medium to long increments. With that being said, I am guessing Crouch will struggle with this and the pressure that the Bulls will bring off the edge. Resulting in at least 2 picks this game. If the Illini are forced to air the ball out consistently, look for coach Smith to insert Jeff George Jr.. George Jr. is a lesser talent overall compared to Crouch, but he undoubtedly has a better arm and passing presence. This leads to my next skeptic point regarding the Illini this week.
Depth. The Illini do not have much depth at any position. Down the board, from the offensive line to the quarterback position to the defensive back position, the Illini simply to not have many options past their starters. Look for the South Florida Bulls to push pace and ware the young Illini out, forcing Smith to insert lower options from the depth chart. Coach Smith has held certain players from playing in hopes of maintaining a redshirt (Kendrick Green) so it will be interesting to see if he is forced to burn those in hopes for fresh legs.
In addition, the Bulls have a supremely talented quarterback in Quinton Flowers. Flowers is a dual-threat quarterback that the Illini will need to contain through the air and on the ground in order to win. Illinois played a dual-threat quarterback in week one and did an awful job of containing him. Flowers is significantly stronger as a quarterback compared to Ball State’s Riley Neal, therefore Illinois will need to be creative with coverage formations, as well as blitzes and quarterback spies.
In all, this is a huge opportunity for the Illini. The stage is so massive, that even playing this game close is a positive for the fanbase and potential recruits. Hanging tough against a ranked opponent on one of the larger stages in College Football will do wonders for the Illini on and off the field, but it is no simple task. In my opinion, this young team simply is not ready for primetime (Surprise,Surprise), and will meet their maker against the highly touted South Florida Bulls. Also, for sentimental reasons, I must mention that South Florida is coming off a cancelled game on the heels of a traumatic national disaster. Thoughts and prayers goes out to those affected, however last time an Illini team played against a sports team dealing with unfortunate circumstances caused by mother nature, they were spanked by a grieving team wearing practice jerseys. I do not expect to hold Lovie Smith on the same pedestal as John Groce, but I just thought fans would want to relive the Groce Glory days.
Anyways, my prediction for this game?